Published on December 7th, 2013 | by Shrink That Footprint


7 Greenest Vehicles On Earth

December 7th, 2013 by  

Originally published on Shrink That Footprint.

greenest vehicles on earth

According to Wikipedia, a ‘vehicle’ is a:

mobile machine that transports passengers or cargo. Most often vehicles are manufactured, such as bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, trains, ships, boats and aircraft.

But somehow, a ‘green vehicle’ is a:

road motor vehicle that produces less harmful impacts to the environment than comparable conventional internal combustion engine vehicles running on gasoline or diesel.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Wikipedia, but I do find it a little ironic that ‘green vehicles’ are pigeon-holed as cars. Because on a full lifecycle emissions basis, cars really aren’t that green compared to other options.

Here’s my take on the world’s seven greenest vehicles.

7: The Nissan Leaf

I thought I’d be charitable and include a car. After all, a huge chunk of global passenger kilometers are from automobiles, so better cars are hugely important for the future. I’ve plumped for the Nissan Leaf as it is the leading all-electric car in Japan, the US, UK, Norway…. Using low-carbon electricity, electric car emissions are down around 50 g CO2e/pkm (passenger kilometre), almost all of which comes from vehicle manufacturing.

The nissan leaf

6: The Intercity Coach

It may surprise you, but the typical Stagecoach or Greyhound diesel bus can often have lower emissions per passenger kilometer than the best electric car. That’s because intercity buses travel at efficient speeds on highways, have decent occupancy, and have tiny manufacturing emissions, as they are spread over so many passengers. I’ve seen a bunch of studies ranging from 35-85 g CO2e/pkm.

The Intercity Coach

5: The School Bus

This one is probably even more surprising, but school buses typically have quite low emissions. Not because they are über efficient, or because they do smooth highway miles, but simply because they have such high occupancy. Emissions per passenger kilometer are typically in the 20-50 g CO2e/pkm range.

The School Bus

4: High Speed Rail

High-speed rail can be very low carbon, particularly with the right juice. We’ve taken the Eurostar and TGV from London down to the Pyrenees a couple of times with emissions about a tenth of what a flight would have been. The largely nuclear electricity in France means emissions of 17 g CO2e/pkm on their high-speed network. Typically, emissions are from 10-60 g CO2e/pkm depending on fuel source.

High Speed Rail

3: Light Urban Rail

Any form of electric train can provide very low carbon miles if it has the right juice. Busy trams, metro, or light-rail systems can also have low emissions. The example below is from Bergen in Norway, where hydro power is dominant. Lifecycle emissions can range from 10-50 g CO2e/pkm depending on fuel source, efficiency, and occupancy.

Light urban rail

2: The Electric Bike

Guess how many electric bikes there are in China today? 200 million!! That number floored me when I first saw it. Almost 30 million e-bikes will be sold in China this year alone. That is about half the number of passenger cars globally. In coal-reliant China, an electric bike has average lifecycle emissions of 22 g CO2e/pkm. Depending on fuel mix, they are typically in the range of 5-30 g CO2e/pkm.

Electric bike

1: The Flying Pigeon Bicycle

The ‘Flying Pigeon‘ is the most popular vehicle of all time. More than 500 million have been produced since 1950. Based on the 1932 Raleigh Roadster, the popular model came in black, with one speed, 28 in (710 mm) wheels, a fully covered chain, sprung leather saddle, rear rack, and rod brakes. This is an old-school classic. In China, where the diet is relatively low carbon and electricity carbon intensive, this bike edges the eBike at around 10 g CO2e/pkm.

The flying pigeon

What is missing from the list?

This isn’t the most scientific of lists, and I get the feeling I must be missing some options? You can get a better grip of the data in our 5 Elements of Sustainable Transport post. The one thing that really surprised me in this post is the rise of electric bikes. It is about 90% a China story currently, but the rate of growth in Brazil, Europe, India, and even the US is really impressive.

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

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Shrink That Footprint is a resource for squeezing more life out of less carbon. We are an independent research group that provides information to people interested in reducing their climate impact. Our core focus is understanding, calculating, and reducing personal carbon footprints.

  • Greg Sheldon

    Not sure I agree with your sentiment that school buses are green, they spend a lot of time in traffic and make lots of stops to pick up people.

    • Bob_Wallace

      For the 2014 list of greenest vehicles I nominate the electric school bus. Especially the ones with solar panels mounted on the bus barn.
      And let’s not forget the electric city buses that are already in service around the world.

      • Kyle Field

        I agree with both posts. Indicative that their “green scale” calibration needs some work…it should not be measuring g CO2 per person on a sliding scale but highlighting green implementations “the high speed rail implementation in germany which is a GE XYZ Electric train running on locally manufactured and installed solar moves people for just 3g CO2 per passenger”…and similar using actual use cases (electric city bus in SLC Utah, etc).

  • J_JamesM

    No mention of aircraft? That’s a shame. I think the Solar Impulse is a great green icon. It proved solar drivetrains can even work at night.

    There are also a handful of electric planes, but the only serious solar/hybrid aircraft that can honestly be considered “transportation” are the odd Canadian Solar Ships, which are about 70% airplane and 30% blimp, and are going to be used to haul cargo and medicine to extremely distant and remote places.

  • ISS?

    • J_JamesM

      Heck no. It’s more like a barge or a building- it may move (very quickly) but it isn’t used to go from place to place; rather, it IS a place which rocket ships go to. And I really doubt rocket ships are “green.”

  • SirSparks

    A passenger or cargo rickshaw must surely be the most green vehicle on the plant.

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